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Kansas City Singer-Songwriters Have A Plan To Get More Women In The Music Industry

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
Singer-songwriters Julie Bennett Hume and Leah Watts are among those who have created Women on the Rise.

A somewhat mysterious, and certainly enduring, fact of the music industry is that male musicians far outnumber female musicians. A group of women wants to change that, in Kansas City at least.

Singer-songwriters Julie Bennett Hume, Leah Watts and four others have started a new organization called Women on the Rise.

Their goal is to “educate, elevate, and empower female musicians,” says Watts, the president of Women on the Rise, who also works at the Kansas City-based Folk Alliance International.

Watts and Bennett Hume recognize that the music industry isn’t different from others when it comes to underusing talented women. Women only hold 24 percent of STEM jobs; 36 percent of legal positions; and 16 percent serve in the military. In music, it’s 22.4 percent.

Credit Julie Bennett Hume
Julie Bennett Hume performs at a recent gig.

Those statistics might be so familiar that they’re not surprising anymore, but the two women say they should be shocking. They have a combined 40 years’ of observing and participating in the song industry, with Bennett Hume making up the majority with 36 years.

What they know:

Women musicians don’t play lead guitar or take the stage as often as their male counterparts.

Women often stop performing when they hit middle age; men often perform until they die.

But it’s not as if men are keeping women from fronting bands, or that men are refusing to book female singers at their venues. So what’s going on?

“It doesn’t feel to me like: We’ve got to get away from these awful men,” Bennett Hume says. “It’s more like the men are going, 'Yeah, get out there and do it, it’s fun to listen to you.’”

The now-retired teacher started in folk music a few decades ago but took a big break from music after her children were born. From her first gig in Lawrence at 18 until the release of her first CD last year, 35 years passed.

Now that she’s fully returned to music, Bennett Hume thinks the scene treats women more favorably than when she was Watts’ age.

Credit Luxe Studios
Singer-songwriter Leah Watts in Kansas City.

“But better isn’t the same as acceptable,” she says.

Watts, who is 25, has only been singing in public for about three years, but that’s enough to have seen that her sisters need a push when it comes to joining the pool of musicians that bar owners and other venue operators draw from when they need acts.

One factor appears to be that more men take the stage at open-mic nights than women, Bennett Hume says. And it’s open-mic nights that help entertainers develop fan bases and gain the attention of venue owners.

And, she says, women favor jams — that is, performing with others in a group. This makes them far less visible as individuals.

If the people who book performers are primarily familiar with male musicians, they’ll primarily book male musicians.

But a reluctance to participate in open mic nights and taking a break to raise children can’t really account for such a huge difference in numbers, so other factors are also holding women back.

“One thing we run into is that we’re good singers and we’re good songwriters, and a lot of us get very timid when it comes to being hotshot instrumentalists,” Bennett Hume says. “It’s like: Oh, I’ve got to get the guy then who can do the cool guitar piece. Traditionally women have been the singers.”

Julie Bennett Hume released her first record in 2017.

Additionally, she points out, if a woman is in a band with men, even if she’s a fabulous singer or musician, “With younger women it’s: get the cute eye candy out front. Youth and beauty.”

That dynamic isn’t limited to folk music, of course. But that's the genre Hume plays. It’s also a genre with plenty of successful women: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Judy Collins and Rita Coolidge all gave keynote speeches at recent Folk Alliance conferences in Kansas City, for example; other names that come to mind include Cheryl Wheeler, Lucy Kaplansky, and Lucy Wainwright Roche.

Bennett Hume quickly points out that these women are solo acts, while women in bands are far less common. And some of those performers are exceptions to the rule.

For instance, Wainwright Roche grew up tightly swaddled in the concert Ts of her mother and two aunts, who made up a popular folk trio called The Roches for over 40 years. Kaplansky was a psyhologist first.

And often, Bennett Hume says, once a woman is older, her looks might not be enough to help the band snag gigs and she may feel discouraged about being in front of an audience.

Leah Watts has released three singles and is working toward an EP.

A recent study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiativeat the University of Southern California backs up what Bennett Hume and Watts have observed — that the music industry is, indeed, off-kilter.

The study looked at 600 popular songs over six years and found that of the 1,239 artists whose songs hit the top of the charts, not even a quarter were women. And most, as Bennett Hume suggests, were soloists.

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Watts says Women on the Rise has an educational component that will address some practical aspects that might hold women back, such as how to approach venue owners and booking agents, how to be persistent when initial phone calls are not returned; issues she thinks men don’t struggle with the same way.

While they have not nailed down precisely why female representation in music is low, Watts says the tide is turning now that groups like Folk Alliance International have vowed to make every event a 50/50 gender split.

Bennett Hume and Watts agree that their new organization will have succeeded when such a policy is no longer necessary, but for now, they’re glad for the change.

Bennett Hume says she hopes men are interested in being a (small) part of Women on the Rise which launches on July 28 with an open mic night at Mike Kelly’s Westsider.

Women on the Rise Ladies’ Open Mic featuring Mikal Shapiro, 3 p.m., Saturday, July 28, at Mike Kelly’s Westsider, 1515 Westport Rd, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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